The Difference in Life Expectancy Between the Rich and Poor is Getting Worse

A new UK study suggests we’re all going to live longer than expected—but some more than others.

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Apr 30 2015, 11:50am

Image: nemodoteles/Flickr

You'd expect life expectancy to keep rising in the future: As we cure more illnesses and work to improve our general living situation, it's no surprise that our prospective age of death continues to steadily climb. But a new UK study suggests that life expectancy in 2030 will exceed official forecasts—if you live in the right postcode.

The good news: We're going to live longer than expected. The bad news: We're not ready for it, and inequality is going to grow along with the national average.

The paper, published in medical journal The Lancet, suggests that by 2030 men will be living to an average of around 85.7 years and women to 87.6 years on the national level. Compare this to estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which forecast that men born in 2030 will live to 83.1 and women to 86.4.

"The fact that [life expectancy is] higher than official forecasts means we need to be planning more for future services."

Why women live longer than men is a combination of biological factors and social differences—in the past at least, men would smoke and drink more, for instance. That gap has been steadily narrowing and is set to continue to diminish.

It might not sound like a lot on an individual level—an extra year for women, a couple extra years for men—but corresponding author Majid Ezzati from Imperial College in London explained in a phone call that we're not prepared for estimates of longevity to be out.

"The fact that it's higher than official forecasts means we need to be planning more for future services," he said. "We should be investing more in the NHS [National Health Service] because people are going to be expected to live longer; we're going to have to invest more in social services for the elderly; we're going to have to expect more and invest more in pensions."

His team's figures suggest that everyone has one or two extra years that are "unplanned for and unpaid for."

Additionally, while everyone's going to be living longer, society will become more unequal. Death is no longer the great equaliser.

The new study goes beyond the national-level projections made by the ONS to break down the life expectancy of geographical areas. The difference between 2012 figures in some places is striking; live in Chelsea, one of the wealthier parts of London, and your life expectancy is five to six years higher than the less rich area of Tower Hamlets, just ten miles or so away in the same city.

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Life expectancy in England and Wales' districts in 2012 (inset is a close-up of London). Image: The Lancet

The researchers were able to model life expectancy down to 375 areas using data from the past to inform the future. They tested several different models to "predict" past data and compared it to the real results, ultimately opting to use the most accurate.

In general, the south of the country has higher forecasted life expectancies, with urban northern towns among the lowest. The study points out that the discrepancy of eight years for men at the lowest and highest end of the scale is the same as the difference between life expectancy in the UK and life expectancy in Sri Lanka or Vietnam. By 2030, the inequality within the UK is expected to grow (something that's true beyond just the specific measure of life expectancy) and Ezzati said it might even be more pointed than their predictions.

"In some sense, given some of the recent policies in the current government that have led to unemployment, to economic inequality, to cuts in the NHS, inequality may be even worse than we have forecasted," he said. "We probably haven't started to see the effects of these policies."

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Life expectancy in England and Wales' districts in 2030 (inset is a close-up of London). Image: The Lancet

The reasons for such inequality are beyond the remit of this new study, but past research has shown that social issues like unemployment can shorten life expectancy.

Ezzati noted that the UK is quite unique in having a national health service that should limit how bad inequalities get. But the quality and accessibility of that healthcare can change with policies and investment.

"I think in some sense the idea of higher taxes for those that are better off is entirely justified."

In their paper, the researchers also add the caveat that it's impossible to know how the system might change in the future. They write that their main limitation "is the inability to account for unexpected events and major changes in social and health systems determinants of health, which can fundamentally change trends and, in extreme cases, even lead to a reversal of life expectancy gain."

The solution, according to Ezzati, is that those living in less deprived areas should pay more into social services; after all, they're going to be using them for longer as they're living longer. "I think in some sense the idea of higher taxes for those that are better off is entirely justified in terms of the use that is made the duration," he said.

In Ezzati's view, longer life is something we should celebrate—but also be prepared to pay for. No one said there wouldn't be a few awkward stumbling blocks along the path to immortality for all.